I arrive at the house with Sarah and after a few moments the door opens. Patient Zero stands there with her face – a polka dot mask – buried in her mother’s thigh. The mother tried to extricate her and beckons us into a house thrumming with bassy music, punctuated by the occasional shriek of overstimulated children.
Next to the front door is an erected pasting table draped in a red cloth, covered in presents. The wrapping paper is nondescript, occasion-neutral. It doesn’t escape me that the paper on one of the presents, replete with bow, is polka in design. Nobody mentioned gift-giving.
Except, of course, the gift of exposure to a contagious disease.
I try to make my excuses but the mother insists and pushes a drink into my hand. I take a seat with the other hangers-on and get into discussion with a father. He gestures towards his son, a boy of about six years old, and tells me the boy has only recently stopped wetting the bed. I explain that because of a clashing hairdressing arrangement I’m here in my wife’s stead. He asks about my work. I keep an eye on Sarah through the patio door. She is now buried to the waist in the outdoor ball pool. Light glints off the dewey balls as they’re tossed around in frenzied armfuls.
The Pox Princess is sat in the middle of an armchair, her mottled legs out horizontal, teetering over the lip of the cushion. Her arms outstretched would be unable to reach those of the chair; she appears lost in it. In her lap a cat submits to long, languishing strokes from the girl, who – it has not gone unnoticed, by me or my conversation partner – is not interacting with anyone.
“And if she’s not interacting with the other kids,” my partner philosophises, “what, even, is the point?”
The mother, wrestling her attention away from a buffet of breadsticks, celery, brainfood, notices this inaction and grasps the Princess by the wrist, navigating across the lounge-cum-dining room and releasing the girl into the epicentre of kids gathered around a Playmobil set. In hushed tones she reprimands the girl, who nods and squats down next to the Bedwetter to play.
I lapse back to the previous day, in the car park, picking up Sarah from school. A group of moms hold forth on the imminent party. One parent eschews on the morals of intentionally exposing a child to discomforting, infectious strains of chicken pox; to which another makes an argument for the Greater Good. A third contributes that it’s grossly selfish and pulls her vacant-looking son towards their car.
“I feel sorry for the kid,” Greater Good continues, “Being trotted out by her mother like that. Such a timid girl, too. Makes you wonder, if it wasn’t for the pox would anyone even go?”
I’m snapped out of my reverie and find Sarah stood in front of me, an arm extended outwards, clutching a blue plastic ball. I take the ball with a smile, and my thumb glides in lazy circles over the glossy surface. I lean in, beckon Sarah closer with a conspiratorial smile.
“Why don’t you go and play with the girl over there?” I motion to the Princess, who has re-established herself in the armchair, sans cat. “I bet she’d like that.”
Sarah smiles as she skips off and I finish my drink.
I exchange final pleasantries with the mother at the door and turn to leave, confirming the pickup time over my shoulder as I make strides towards the car. Sat behind the wheel I look back to the house. Sarah and the Pox Princess are sat in the bay window at the front of the house, passing a sausage roll between them – alternating bites.